| Interviews

A Story Worth Sharing: Betsy Cornwell on Fairy Tales, Writing, and The Old Knitting Factory

Frannie Dove

YA Novelist Betsy Cornwell has always loved fairy tales. As a child, they read Lang’s Fairy Books, which includes stories from Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm. The selkie bride story that inspired their first novel, Tides (2013), was one of many tales in their grandparents’ illustrated copy of Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. Over the course of Cornwell’s career, these children’s stories also evolved into a New York Times bestselling Cinderella retelling (Mechanica), its sequel (Venturess), a female Robin Hood retelling (The Forest Queen), and a circus-themed retelling of Snow White and Rose Red (The Circus Rose).

This kind of writing by retelling hadn’t always been their plan. But early feedback informed Cornwell that their strengths were in description and poetry, not plot. A course titled “Fairy Tales and Gender” at Cornwell’s undergraduate school, Smith College, offered a new perspective on storytelling.

BC: A fairy tale is this plot that has worked for a lot of people for a long time, and I can use it as plot training wheels. If I do a retelling, then I have the plot and I can kind of focus on my pretty language.

Though Cornwell always wanted to be a writer, the desire to write for young adult (YA) audiences first emerged during an internship at Teen Ink. It was there that they first recognized how seriously young people approach storytelling and realized they might enjoy writing for young readers instead of producing “high-brow literary work” for adults. 

Cornwell says their connection with literature for young people comes from a “heart place,” an attempt to make a genuine connection. They admire the “brilliant and wonderful” nature of young adult audiences, particularly teenagers. “It’s an exhausting, disorienting, terrible time of life,” they say, but books can be “a kind of medicine… a lifesaver…and a helping hand.”

BC: That’s what books were for me when I was a child and a young adult. That’s what they still are. It’s something that helps me get through the days and helps me to live my life. I think that’s one of the most amazing things that books can be.

Cornwell praises the diversity in YA and the #ownvoices movement, which they credit for increasing “representation of writers of color and queer writers” more than in many other genres. They believe that a storyteller’s identity and beliefs are equally important to the stories they tell, that politics and art are intertwined.

BC: When you’re a storyteller, the things you choose to talk about, those are political choices. What you’re really saying is, this is someone whose story is worth telling. The stories you tell and the stories you don’t tell say something about your beliefs, your values, who you think is important in the world and who you think is less important.

Perhaps it is this political view of storytelling that prompts Cornwell to begin their fairy tale retellings for young audiences from a place of both admiration and rebellion. 

BC: If I just agreed with everything about a story, I probably wouldn’t have enough to write a book about.

For instance, Cornwell notes that because many fairy tales take place in kingdoms, there are implications of monarchy, such as colonialism and imperialism, that have to be addressed. Cornwell relishes pushing back against these elements of old stories, noting how fairy tale readers naturally “draw parallels to their own life and to larger societal issues from their own perspective.” 

BC: I was always a very girly child and I’m a very girly adult. I enjoyed writing a long, pretty description of Cinderella’s dress in my Cinderella book, but I also had a lot to say about the monarchy. I think you can have both those things.

Cornwell balances these ideas in their vivid retelling of Snow White and Rose Red, entitled The Circus Rose. It’s a story that explores “transformation and embodiment, gender and sexuality and preservation.” It’s also a fascinating read in terms of form: to distinguish the alternating narratives of twin sister protagonists, Ivory and Rosie, Cornwell wrote Rosie’s chapters in verse.

Poetry had been Cornwell’s first love in writing as a child, and they returned to poetry during a vulnerable time in their life: the end of their marriage. They sold The Circus Rose proposal with two narrators, one whose “voice would break into fractured lines at heightened moments.” These fractured lines paralleled the fractures of their own life.

BC: I’m really proud of the fractured aspects of The Circus Rose because it works for the narrative and also because it’s reflective of when I accomplished something huge in writing this book and providing for myself and my kid at a really scary time in my life.

The Circus Rose will likely be the last of Cornwell’s five novels to take place in the Mechanica Universe. They attribute their worldbuilding in the books to “open threads,” a concept inspired by their favorite novel, Jody Smith’s Capture the Castle, in which the narrator talks about her “dislike for happy endings, where everything is over, and that’s it.” Cornwell prefers to leave the door open for life to continue beyond the narrative.

Cornwell’s next open door is a new YA novel titled Reader, I Murdered Him. The book, which will be published in fall 2021, is a sequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. As with fairy tales, Cornwell was first introduced to Jane Eyre as a child. Cornwell’s mother expected that they would sympathize with Jane, but it was Bertha’s situation that haunted them.

BC: I was really horrified by the idea of this woman locked up in an attic for years.

During their time enrolled in Notre Dame’s creative writing MFA Program, Cornwell took a class called “Jane’s Heirs” with a reading list inspired by Jane Eyre, including Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. In that vein, Cornwell sees Reader, I Murdered Him as an homage to other Eyre-inspired novels while adding their own perspective and exploring the original novel’s ideas through a contemporary lens. Though the idea of Mr. Rochester as a romantic hero disturbs Cornwell, they have no interest in criticizing the classic. In fact, they call it “one of the great achievements of human literature.”

BC: There’s a great tradition of literature as this call and response…It’s not about erasing the original. It’s the same way I approach a fairy tale retelling. It’s just adding to that conversation.

Cornwell also has a passion for teaching and has taught both college courses and led writing retreats. The work of young writers keeps them inspired, and their students are a reminder to “find joy in the process.” That joy, according to Cornwell, is contagious.

Last July, Cornwell moved into an old knitting factory in Connemara, Ireland, with their three-year-old son. Now, alongside writing and teaching, Cornwell is developing a writing retreat of their own. The project grew from their own search for community.

BC: My plan is to make The Old Knitting Factory into a childcare-inclusive arts retreat for single mothers and other twice-marginalized single parents. That might be people who are queer or trans or parents of color, who might not identify as mothers, but who have another aspect of their lives that makes things maybe not quite so easy for them.

Cornwell’s goal is to form a communal space where these mothers can gather and be valued. A crowdfunding campaign began in spring 2020, and is already halfway to reaching its goal. Along with writer-centric rewards for donors like writing mentorship sessions or feedback on a creative writing draft, Cornwell is embroidering every single supporter’s name into tapestries that will hang around the building.

BC: I find myself a beginner again…doing something I’ve never done before, which is scary. But I think that’s exactly where you learn to grow.

Cornwell sees the same promise in The Old Knitting Factory as the old stories they’ve retold for modern YA audiences. They are charting a narrative as a single mother, an American writer and educator living in and renovating a historic home in Ireland. Cornwell’s mission is a physical manifestation of their ability to create spaces for found family and acceptance, both within their writing and outside of it. Just like the fairy tales that first inspired Cornwell to write, it’s a story worth sharing. 

Betsy Cornwell

is the New York Times best-selling author of The Circus Rose, The Forest Queen, Venturess, Mechanica, and Tides. Their newest novel, Reader, I Murdered Him, a sequel to Jane Eyre, is forthcoming in Fall 2021. They teach creative writing at NIU Galway and serve as digital and story editor for Parabola Magazine. They write from the Old Knitting Factory in Connemara, Ireland. Follow their work on Instagram @betsycornwell and @oldknittingfactory.

Frannie Dove

is an MFA candidate in Fiction at George Mason University. She writes from Northern Virginia, where she’s working on a YA historical novel and short stories about Civil War women. Follow her on Instagram & Twitter @franniedove or learn more at franniedove.com.

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